Jared Lankford: The gridiron shrink, is football on the brink?
Friday nights in the fall have been a revered and respected tradition for many for decades.
High school football stadiums welcome thousands of screaming fans and the events take on nearly a religious atmosphere with a dedicated following that has even resorted to prayers in the stands when the situation is most dire.
Outside of maybe graduation, the school will not host a larger community attended event than those contested on Friday nights.
However, those glory days may have passed their prime and are in danger of becoming history.
Each year, I am tasked with creating the Gridiron Guide football preview magazine. In order to accomplish this feat, coordination with the 15 teams and their coaches is a necessity.
It is customary to visit with these coaches when I visit their camps and small talk is a must.
The last two years, there has been one subject that every coach has discussed without me bringing up — participation.
Last week, Aurora notified the teams on its schedule that it would not be able to field a junior varsity, nor a freshman team, this season.
When asked how many current players were on his roster, Coach Craig Weldy bluntly stated – 24.
That’s not 24 varsity-only players. That is only two dozen players total in grades 9-12.
This is coming from a Class 3 program that had 440 enrolled in grades 9-11, according to information supplied to the Missouri State High School Activities Association (MSHSAA) last year, and that is only five years removed from a state semifinal appearance.
According to MSHSAA, there were 350 schools that played 11-man football in 2015, and since then, nearly 10 schools have dropped football entirely.
That number will shrink again in 2019, as at least five high schools dropped from 11-man to 8-man football.
Appleton City, Bishop LeBlond, Rich Hill, Liberal and Drexel all voted to move to 8-man football, while St. Joseph Christian co-opted with Northland Christian to move to 11-man.
Even more concerning is that roster sizes continue to wither away.
According to MSHSAA statistics, nearly 25,000 athletes played football in Missouri in 2007. Last season, that number was fewer than 20,000.
MSHSAA Communications Director Jason West said the player loss had ranged from 100-200 for the last five years, but last year, the sport saw an 800-player participation drop state-wide.
In the Big 8, over half of the coaches are fighting just to keep a 10-player-per-class average on the roster.
Southwest Missouri has already watched as McAuley folded its program and Greenfield had to bounce back from a two-year period as an 8-man program.
Still, there are signs of growth. Clever and Forsyth have added new gridiron programs, but they are the outliers in now what is a nasty downward state trend.
Everyone — from coaches, to fans to players themselves — has a theory as to why the team is struggling for recruits.
To me, several have validity, and most are applicable to every school in the Big 8.
First, you have those athletes who want to specialize in one sport. Because they see their future through a tunnel, they refuse to play anything else. I have had more than one college recruiter tell me that they prefer athletes who play multiple sports to those who specialize.
Also, some athletes are getting burned out by the year-in, year-out grind of one sport. Already this year, I have talked to three area All-State athletes who have quit their college teams, citing sports burnout as the culprit.
Secondly, youth feeder systems were not maintained and grown. Even Monett has seen a steady decline in the number of youth involved in Mighty Mites in the last few years. The Monett Youth Baseball and Softball League has extended deadlines in recent years to find enough young people to fill rosters.
Just three years ago, Maplewood-Richmond Heights school district voted to dissolve its football program this year due to lack of student interest. What is surprising is that the Blue Devils were state quarterfinalists in 2012. They advanced to the semifinals in 2011 and were the Class 2 state runners-up in 2010.
It is no coincidence that the Cubs’ semifinal run in 2014 was spearheaded by 22 seniors and a 2016 state championship by 16 seniors.
Schools with an enrollment north of 400 should routinely produce a 10-12-players-per-class minimum.
Likewise, Monett should be able to match Cassville and graduate 17-25 football players every year.
There will always be those parents and players who complain about coaching and athletes who don’t want to play for a losing team. In my opinion, they are part of the problem.
There are outside influences that also have hurt football in general. The game is increasingly coming under attack for its violent nature. You can easily see how the game has changed on the professional level. Newbury High School, outside of Cleveland, canceled its last three games this year due to excessive injuries and fear for player safety.
Dr. Bennet Omalu, a forensic pathologist who fought against efforts by the National Football League to suppress his research on the brain damage suffered by professional football players, is now leading a charge to ban not just high school football, but all youth football.
Individually, these items may not seem to be enough to tip the scales against football. But, tied together, they are causing damage to a sport that many love and hold dear.
I am glad that we’ve held onto varsity football, but for how long?
I can imagine there are still some conference athletic directors with their hands on their phones ready to find replacement games.
Only time will tell if football will survive, or if these smaller numbers are a harbinger of things to come our way.
Jared Lankford is the sports editor of the Cassville Democrat. He may be reached at email@example.com or by calling 417-847-2610.